Sunday, 24 June 2012

'It takes at least two centuries to judge a painter.'

On a rainy Friday in Brussels, I recently visited the Wiertz Museum, situated next to the European Parliament in 62 Rue Vautier. Championed by Montague Summers, who used no less than three of Wiertz's paintings as illustrations in The Vampire: Hit Kith and Kin, half a dozen of the paintings by Antoine-Joseph Wiertz keep turning up in books on various macabre subjects like vampires. So, of course, I had good reason to head straight for the museum, part of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium, despite getting soaked by the rain.

Born in Dinant in 1806, Wiertz clearly was unusual, not only as a painter, but as an individual. In the leaflet on sale at the museum - the only text on his life and work currently available - he is described as 'a visionary artist, a champion of monumental painting, a 'pictorial philosopher', an often powerful sculptor, and prolific writer - who was also endowed with a quite extraordinary personality.' Visiting the museum, located in a huge building, one immediately wonders why he chose the subjects of many of his paintings: Death, cruelty, suicide, a mother whose child is badly burned, children mourning the loss of their father, the devil, hell, a head severed from the body, and a prematurely buried person. Why should someone have this extraordinarily macabre craving for spending his time meticulously painting such visions?

Part of an answer was given me by the museum attendant, himself an artist, who was keeping an eye out on the few visitors to the museum and on the raindrops entering through the roof, while also answering questions from me and the two or three other visitors. Clearly very much interested in the work of Wiertz, he told me that Wiertz used his paintings as social commentary to attract the public eye to concrete problems and to help people in need. This was the case of the woman who had left her child at home while she was out to work, only to return to find that her house was on fire and her child had been badly burned. Wiertz painting the scene in all its horror, exhibited the painting, L'Enfant brûlé, and donated the revenue to the mother. At the same time, Wiertz suggested that one should take care of children at nurseries when their mothers had to go out, to prevent small children from being left home alone. A novel and progressive idea at the time.

The building that houses the museum is a huge studio, apparently patterned on the ruins of the temple of Poseidon in Paestum in Italy, bequeathed by the Belgian government to Wiertz in 1850, enabling the artist to work on his gigantic paintings, one of them appropriately portraying a giant. In fact, the famous Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen said of Wiertz, when both men were in Rome: 'This young man is a giant'.

Wiertz lived for his art, never desiring neither marriage nor wealth. Despite his many portrayals of naked women, the woman who mattered most to him appears to have been his mother. Most famous of all is his portrayal of female vanity, a naked model studying the skeletal remains of a beautiful woman, La Belle Rosine, but the same vanity is also the motif of a the twin paintings of Le miroir du Diable, Satan's mirror.

The Devil hiding behind the mirror is very similar to the face peeping in on the naked woman reading in her bed, apparently a painting causing a scandal at the time, not because of the woman being naked, but because of her posture, the mirror image and the theme of the book on her bed: adultery. According to the attendant, the painting was simply considered pornographic.

One is left in no doubt of the singularity of the vision of Wiertz, but was he a great artist? Views differ, but Wiertz has very few champions these days. His taste for the gigantic, the sensational and the macabre certainly lends him no favours, unless if you are particularly interested in those things.

Indeed, while one is accustomed to various horrors in the cinema, one rarely goes to an art museum to see a suicidal man literally blowing his head off, a woman who is raving so much from hunger that she kills her child to supper on its limbs, or the horrors of the prematurely buried who awakens in his or her coffin, a painting inspired by the find of the skeleton of a person who had clearly been buried too hastily.

The three paintings by Wiertz chosen to illustrate The Vampire: His Kith and Kin were Faime, folie, crime, Le Suicide, and, of course, L'inhumation precipitée. The attendant told me that the latter - so famous or infamous from numerous vampire books - was originally exhibited in a tent where you had to look at the painting through a kind of telescope, so you would get the feeling that you were yourself looking out of your own coffin to see the person peering out of a coffin.

Standing in front of this painting, exhibited in a frame probably not too dissimilar to that of the wooden coffin depicted, I was again left contemplating what kind of person would spend his time painting this motif. Years before pulp novels, EC comics and recent horror films, sometimes simply exploring horror for its own sake, it is really a strange and unpleasant painting. No doubt, Wiertz had his own philosophical - as he coined it - reasons to choose the motif, showing us the folly and unfortunate fate of humans, but the effect nevertheless is macabre and horrifying.

The ubiquitous presence of Wiertz's painting in books on vampires goes to show how singular and effective the work is. Has any other painter before the twentieth century created anything like this? I for one cannot think of anything like it.

Wiertz himself claimed that 'it is impossible to condemn or absolve a man's work before his demise; it takes at least two centuries to judge a painter.' Less than that time has passed since his death, but it is clear that he has very few champions these days. In many ways, Wiertz has what it takes to become a genuine cult. The leaflet on sale at the museum concludes with the words: 'Wiertz annoys or seduces, but never leaves one indifferent.'

Writing in The Economist in 2009, Charlemagne certainly was not indifferent. He considered Wiertz 'perhaps the worst painter to have a government-funded museum all to himself, at least in the free world,' and wrote of his fate:

'For a while, posterity’s judgment was kind. In 1927, six decades after his death, his studio received 46,000 visitors. Belgian art-lovers thrilled to the melodrama of “Premature Burial”, in which an anguished figure peeps out from a coffin in which he is trapped. They relished the social commentary of “Hunger, Madness and Crime”, depicting a destitute peasant waving a bloody knife as the leg of her murdered infant peeps from a cooking pot. Nor was patriotism forgotten. In “Ravishing of a Belgian woman”, Wiertz breaks with convention by equipping his heroine with a pistol (although not with any clothes). She duly shoots the soldier molesting her, causing his head to explode, an event Wiertz depicts in gory detail.

Alas, modern audiences have proved less tolerant of such cod-Gothic nonsense. In recent years the Wiertz Museum has attracted an average of just ten visitors a day, many of them dragooned in school parties (the museum is currently closed for a few months, while its roof is replaced). The curator, Brita Velghe, concedes that Wiertz is “no Rubens”, but defends the museum as a rare example of a 19th-century studio, with a unique history. Ms Velghe adds that Wiertz might flourish today as a performance artist (he once turned up in Paris with a 28 square-metre painting of the Trojan wars, demanding that it be displayed in a tent outside the Louvre).'

Quasimodo and Esmeralda
Dissatisfied with traditional techniques of oil painting, Wiertz had created his own technique, peinture mat, mat painting, that recreates the look of a fresco. Unfortunately, the mix of colours, terpentine and petrol deteriorated the artist's own health, leading to his death in 1865. He had requested to be embalmed in accordance with ancient Egyptian burial rites and buried in the garden of his atelier, now the Wiertz museum. He was in fact embalmed, but the authorities had him buried at a local cemetery in Brussels. His heart, however, was embalmed separately and sent to his native town, Dinant.

Obviously, in death, as well as in life, he was a singular person.

The collected writings of Wiertz, published in 1870, are available on Google Books.

The Royal Museum of the Fine Arts of Belgium houses several famous paintings, including some by Breughel and Bosch that might be of interest to readers of this blog, and those interested in the art of another artist whose works have adorned books on e.g. vampires, Felicien Rops (1833-98), may wish to travel to Namur, south west of Brussels, to the Musée Rops. Whereas the works of Wiertz are to remain at the museum in Brussels, the drawings and painting by Rops have been exhibited abroad. I myself saw a selection exhibited in Denmark some years ago.

Plus philosophique qu'on ne pense (More philosophical than one thinks)

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

When it rains, it pours

Today novitel reports that another 'vampire skeleton' has been found, this time in central Bulgaria. I suppose it's safe to say that by now every self respecting Bulgarian archaeologist seems to be jumping the vampire band wagon. To what extent we can really talk about vampires or other kinds of revenants is pretty difficult to say, cf. also bshistorian's recent comments, but so far I have decided to just mention the news as they are reported from Bulgaria:

New centuries-old skeleton of a man who has been buried with a rite to prevent him from becoming a vampire has been found in central Bulgaria.

The skeleton is nailed to the ground with four metal brackets and burning coals were placed over the tomb, according to a report of the largest private TV channel bTV.

The skeleton is of a man about 30 years of age, and it is yet to be dated, but Bulgaria's top archeologist, Nikolay Ovcharov, is quoted saying it is several centuries-old.

Ovcharov explains that the man has not been a vampire, but was buried with a pagan rite to prevent him from turning into one after the death.

The skeleton was found during archeological digs in a monastery near the central city of Veliko Tarnovo, where 10 years ago Ovcharov's team came upon a very similar find.

Monday, 11 June 2012

The 'Vampire' is in Sofia

No day without news of the vampire skeletons from Bulgaria, this time from the Focus Information Agency, stating that The Vampire is now in Sofia:

Sofia. “Under stepped-up security measures, and to the relief of the old ladies from the coastal town of Sozopol, the skeleton of the vampire has been transported from Sozopol to the National Museum of History in Sofia on Sunday,” museum’s director Bozhidar Dimitrov announced for FOCUS News Agency.
“Here the skeleton will be analysed and studied by the prominent anthropologist, Professor Yordan Yordanov. It has been ‘furnished’ with a glass box. Probably visitors will have the chance to see this strange proof to the beliefs and superstitions of our ancestors next weekend,” Dimitrov added.
“Those, who are afraid that the vampire will bring bad luck to Sofia and Sofia citizens, should feel calm as it has been neutralised by the iron stake yet in the Middle Ages. In this sense, it is less dangerous than a utilised shell,” Bozhidar Dimitrov remarked.

According to, 'BBC and Russia's RTV have already expressed their interest in filming documentaries on Bulgaria's "vampire" skeletons, according to local media.'

The Darkest Sources of Bram Stoker

I recently received a copy of Neil R. Storey's book The Dracula Secrets: Jack the Ripper and the Darkest Sources of Bram Stoker (The History Press, 303 pages, hardcover, RRP £20), and although I have no far only dipped into it here and there, I can fairly easily say that this contains nothing of particular interest with regards to vampires, but it will no doubt be of interest to the Dracula, Bram Stoker or Jack the Ripper buff.

Storey, an award-winning historian, lecturer and author of many books, aims to link 'the Whitechapel vampire', i.e. Jack the Ripper, with Dracula, as one of Stoker's sources of inspiration. As I have so far not read the entire book, I am unable to say how successful he is in establishing this connection, but the book certainly contains a wealth of information on Stoker and some about the Ripper. It is very nicely illustrated, and among the appendices is the list of items from Stoker's library that was auctioned off at Sotheby's in 1913, including the notes for Dracula that a certain Mr. Drake purchased for the sum of £2 2s!

Another appendix is taken from the 1887 edition of Baedecker's Southern Germany and Austria, Including Hungary and Transylvania. Handbook for Travellers, detailing the railway trip from Klausenburg (Cluj) to Bistritz  (Bistriţa).

From Reiseführer durch Rumänien published in Bucharest in 1932.
A friend of mine gave me a copy of Jack the Ripper: The Casebook by Richard Jones some time ago. This is an unusual book about the crimes of the Ripper, because it contains pockets with 18 items of removable facsimile documents and memorabilia. If you happen to be interested in doing some armchair sleuthing, you might want to consider getting hold of this book.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Bulgaria: the new vampire country?

The growing international interest in the archaeological find of 'vampire skeletons' in Sozopol in Bulgaria now make the Bulgarians point to other 'vampire' locations, hoping that they may attract some 'vampire tourism'. See the video in this news story, and those below. Director of National Museum of History, Bozhidar Dimitrov, even tries to appropriate Dracula by quoting Elizabeth Kostova, author of the Dracula novel The Historian, claiming that Dracula was originally Bulgarian.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Videos from Sozopol

Footage from Sozopol via Zona Burgas, where you can also see a video about Ukrainian journalists visiting the site. More footage in an interview with Bozhidar Dimitrov on Bulgarian National Television.

Something for your home?

Making it onto BBC's web siteTennants Auctioneers in North Yorkshire, UK, is auctioneering this kit off on June 22:

'One piece in particular, (drawing attention from both the UK and America) is an unusual 19th century vampire slaying kit, which almost complete and in good condition, can be dated to after Bram Stoker wrote the famous Dracula novel, which popularised the vampire character and possibly started the trend of vampire slaying kits. The mahogany casket, complete with percussion cap pistol, steel bullet mould, mallet and stakes, Rosary beads, glass bottles, prayer book dated 1857 and crucifix, which was found in the cellar of the vendors deceased uncle, is in good condition and expected to make £1500-2000. It will certainly be exciting to see where the casket ends up; perhaps with many scenes of Bram Stokers novel being set in the Yorkshire seaside town of Whitby, the vampire slaying kit might only make a short journey after the sale. With live internet bidding on the day however, and already genuine international interest, it could end up overseas!.'

These kits have been the subject of discussion on various web sites and blogs, and a whole article was devoted to them in a recent issue of The Fortean Times. Here Jonathan Ferguson writes that the standing record for one of these kits is no less than $26,400! The first one on auction apparently turned up in 1994 at Sotheby's. Fetching $12,000, it probably inspired others to create similar faux kits. Although fake, there are no doubt a number of people out there who would like to have this kind of item. It would certainly inspire some interesting discussions at any party...

Related links: A list of vampire killing kits, Jonathan Ferguson's blog, and one of a number of posts on the subject on The Vampirologist blog.

Thanks to Mr. Ranft for notifying me of this news story.

Friday, 8 June 2012

A Bulgarian 'vampire skeleton' close up

From the Bulgarian Standart web site.

Cf. the news from the National Museum of History, Sofia.

Another twist on Vampire Tourism

Vampire tourism is a term that I have used several times over the years on this blog, so it is curious to find it in the news: 'Vampire' tourism in Bulgaria? reports that 'the considerable interest from abroad (in the Bulgarian 'vampire' skeletons discovered in Sozopol) can prove to be a perfect opportunity for popularizing Bulgaria's traditional folklore and its bizarre creatures and tales around the world.

Who knows, maybe a movie based on Bulgarian folklore can pour some fresh blood into the repetitive vampire film industry (pun not intended)?

Bulgarian tour operators have been quoted saying that the interest has been huge and Germans, Brits and Russians have already inquired about "vampire vacations" in Sozopol.

I do not want to discourage potential tourists, but travelling all the way to Bulgaria to see a skeleton pierced with an iron rod feels like a lame idea.

Firstly, Bulgaria has much more fascinating stuff to offer as a tourist destination, and secondly, vampires are truly great, but they belong to fiction. Looking at perfectly normal skeletons placed in a museum is not the point.'

Another news story, Vampire Hype to Boost Bulgaria's Tourism, provides some more insights to the archaeological find in Sozopol - and there is even a Venetian connection:

'People on three continents are excited about Bulgarian vampires in the wake of local archeologists claiming to have found a vampire skeleton in the Black Sea town of Sozopol.

The skeleton was the one of a buried man with an iron stick in his chest. He was buried over 700 years ago and was stabbed multiple times in the chest and the stomach, as his contemporaries feared that he would raise from the dead as a vampire, National History Museum Director, Bozhidar Dimitrov, told local media.

The Bulgarian Standard daily, which published a series of articles on the discovery, reports Thursday that media in the US, Europe and Asia have all broken the news in the press and in online editions.

The story found its place in two articles of the most-read tabloid in the world – The Daily Mail, in the Washington Post, BBC, and a number of Russian media.

Meanwhile, Bulgarian tour operators are quoted saying that the interest has been huge and Germans and Brits have already inquired about "vampire vacations" in Sozopol. There is an expected increase of visits from the US and Russia as well, while long lines are reported at the excavation site near the Saint Nicholas Wonderworker monastery.

Speaking for Standard, Bozhidar Dimitrov explained that the vampire's name was Krivich (The Crooked) and he was a legendary pirate, manager of the Sozopol fortress or one of his heirs.

The Crooked, as his contemporaries called him, has been a crippled, but extremely intelligent man. He outshined everyone with his knowledge about the sea, the stars and herbs. Byzantine chronicles describe how he plundered a Venetian ship. It is possible that he was declared a master of the witchcraft because of these talents, which explains the metal stake through his heart.

Experts also believe that the man may have been an intellectual and perhaps a medic, as such individuals often raised suspicions in the Middle Ages. The grave was discovered near the apse of a church, which suggests that he was an aristocrat.

According to archaeologists, this is the first time a "vampire" burial has been discovered in Sozopol.

Over 100 buried people whose corpses were stabbed to prevent them from becoming vampires have been discovered across Bulgaria over the years, according to Dimitrov.'

According to Focus, the skeletons will be on display at the National Museum of History in Sofia:

'The vampire burial unearthed in the seaside city of Sozopol will be displayed in the National Museum of History in Sofia due to the keen interest in Bulgaria and abroad, museum director Bozhidar Dimitrov told FOCUS News Agency.

The vampire will be displayed in about ten days when the special glass case in which it will be laid is ready.

On Tuesday AFP reported that archaeologists in Bulgaria unearthed two skeletons from the Middle Ages pierced through the chest with iron rods to keep them from turning into vampires.

According to pagan beliefs, people who were considered bad during their lifetimes might turn into vampires after death unless stabbed in the chest with an iron or wooden rod before being buried.

"These two skeletons stabbed with rods illustrate a practice which was common in some Bulgarian villages up until the first decade of the 20th century," national history museum chief Bozhidar Dimitrov said after the recent find in the Black Sea town of Sozopol.

People believed the rod would also pin the dead into their graves to prevent them from leaving at midnight and terrorizing the living, the historian explained.

The practice was common, Dimitrov added, saying some 100 similar burials had already been found in Bulgaria.

Archaeologist Petar Balabanov, who in 2004 unearthed six nailed-down skeletons at a site near the eastern town of Debelt, said the pagan rite was also practiced in neighboring Serbia and other Balkan countries.'

Go here to read various posts about 'vampire tourism'.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

The darker sides of Venetian history

The brilliant German magazine Der Spiegel Geschichte has just published an issue that explores various aspects of the history of Venice. Of particular relevance to the subject of this blog is a four page article about the plague that ravaged the city several times, Die ganze Stadt ein Grab. The supposed 'vampire' with a brick in its mouth found in the Lazaretto Nuovo is also depicted, and the theory is recounted.

Another dark side of Venetian history is explored in an article on the gruesome executions that were carried out in the city. The list of contents can be found on Der Spiegel's web site.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

A sudden burst of interest in 'vampire skeletons'

A news story about 'vampire skeletons' found in Bulgaria providing very little actual information, and suddenly - as the story circulated around the globe - the number of visits to this blog exploded. Apparently a lot of people were searching for information on those 'vampire skeletons' and found some of my posts on the subject, like Another 'vampire' skeleton foundYet another Czech 'vampire' found'Vampire Skeletons'Revenants and vampire forensics and The Vampire Bites Back? interesting.

Bringing the vampire back home...

'And that was how it was throughout Transylvania and Hungary and Bulgaria, and through all those countries where the peasants know that the living dead walk, and the legends of the vampires abound. In every village where we did encounter the vampire, it was the same.

"A mindless corpse?" the boy asked.

"Always," said the vampire. "When we found these creatures at all. I remember a handful at most. Sometimes we only watched them from a distance, all too familiar with their wagging, bovine heads, their haggard shoulders, their rotted, ragged clothing. In one hamlet it was a woman, only dead for perhaps a few months; the villagers had glimpsed her and knew her by name. It was she who gave us the only hope we were to experience after the monster in Transylvania, and that hope came to nothing. She fled from us through the forest and we ran after her, reaching out for her long black hair. Her white burial gown was soaked with dried blood, her fingers caked with the dirt of the grave. And her eyes ... they were mindless, empty, two pools that reflected the moon. No secrets, no truths, only despair."'

Anne Rice let her vampires meet 'the European vampire, the creature of the Old World,' only to find that it was a mindless corpse, devoid of the qualities that characterized her vampires from New Orleans, no doubt in particular those romantic qualities that has made an incredible number of readers gravitate to her Interview with the Vampire since its publication in 1976. Obviously, the village vampire was not an enticing subject, whereas more or less aristocratic and artistic anti-heroes and stories of alternate races whetted the appetite of readers, leading us on to the vampires of Twilight, all but annulling the essential characteristics of the vampire.

Popular fiction, however, has always had a fancy for adding some historical ingredients, and the supposed 'vampire' skeleton found in Venice has sparked an interest in exploring that connection. As mentioned previously, an episode of the Dr. Who series, Vampires of Venice, was set there, and I recently had opportunity to watch it. Unfortunately, it is strictly for kids only, providing nothing of interest to anyone interested in vampires - apart from the setting of a vampire story (ahem, they are actually aliens) in Venice (something that incidentally was also the case of Nosferatu a Venezia, sort of a sequel to Werner Herzog's Nosferatu).

The Venice connection has also inspired James Becker to write a riveting novel, The Nosferatu Scroll, the fourth in a series about British police detective Chris Bronson and his wife, the archaeologist Angelia Lewis. The novel combines vampiric skeletons in Venice with the notions behind the Vampir Prinzessin documentary, but ultimately, the story is simply an exciting horror and crime novel, not very dissimilar to a mix of Fred Vargas and Dan Brown, providing no particular insights into vampire history. It contains an author's note on vampires and the inspiration for the novel, including a photo of the brick in mouth skull from the Nuovo Lazzaretto. I am, however, sure that readers will be intrigued by the many locations in Venice that are visited in the novel, like the island of Poveglia. Certainly suggestions for thanatourism, if someone has an inclination for that.

The Vampyrus Serviensis is explored in a handful of novels. I have recently reviewed Un lieu incertain by Fred Vargas and Fear and Servant by Mirjana Novakovic, but the same subject has inspired Kinder des Judas by Markus Heitz, which includes historical persons like Glaser and Flückinger, and Totenbraut by Nina Blazon which is set in another part of Serbia but at the time of the famous Serbian vampire cases in Kisiljevo and Medvedja. Both authors, like James Becker, include some notes on their historical inspiration at the end of their novels, but Blazon has added some more information on her web site, and Heitz has published a popular book on vampires.

Whether we can in fact speak of a new trend in vampire fiction is, I think, hard to say, but perhaps more novels will be inspired by archaeological discoveries and the actual historical information we have, bringing the fiction vampire somewhat closer to its roots? That would require a bit of work on behalf of the novelists, but then Markus Heitz writes that he had so much fun out of creating a vampire novel in a historical setting that he might revisit the theme in the future.

I myself have no aspirations as a fictional author, although I once suggested how a novel à la Dan Brown could include some clues to vampires in Vienna, but I think that another source of inspiration for future vampire fiction could be travelogues, e.g. like those by Mary Edith Durham, a British woman travelling around the Balkans in the early 20th century. Like earlier travellers through the region, she learned about the local customs and beliefs, including those concerning vampires, and she wrote a number of books and articles about her experiences. I am sure that also here is a good deal of ideas to inspire novelists, bringing 'the European vampire, the creature of the Old World' further back home.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Over 100 'Vampire' Graves Discovered

'Over 100 'Vampire' Graves Discovered in Bulgaria,' reports the Sofia news agency novinite after an interview with Bozhidar Dimitrov, head of the Bulgarian National History Museum, on the occasion of the archaeological find of two 'vampires' in the Black Sea town of Sozopol. Iron sticks had apparently been stabbed into the two bodies.

Dimitrov says, 'I do not know why an ordinary discovery like that became so popular. Perhaps because of the mysteriousness of the word "vampire." These people were believed to be evil while they were alive, and it was believed that they would become vampires once they are dead, continuing to torment people. (---) The curious thing is that there are no women among them. They were not afraid of witches.'

According to Wikipedia, 'Sozopol (Bulgarian: Созопол) is an ancient seaside town located 35 km south of Burgas on the southern Bulgarian Black Sea Coast. Today it is one of the major seaside resorts in the country, known for the Apollonia art and film festival (which takes place in early September) that is named after one of the town's ancient names.'

Saturday, 2 June 2012


I was unaware of the term thanatourism ('involving travel to sites associated with death and tragedy') until I noticed it in this blog post from Powered by Osteons on the Museum Boorhave in Leiden and its famous anatomical theatre. I posted about the same subject a couple of years ago when I had myself visited Leiden, the birthplace of Gerard van Swieten. Powered by Osteons is the personal blog of bioarchaeologist Kristina Killgrove.

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